Friday, July 3, 2020

THE ROBERT DONAT BLOGATHON: The 39 Steps, 1935


Maddy Loves Her Classic Films is hosting The Robert Donat Blogathon on July 3 to 5. Click HERE to join in the admiration for the fondly remembered actor.


Robert Donat was an actor of great commitment and versatility. Over 25 years, Donat appeared in 20 movies, winning an Oscar for Goodbye, Mr. Chips, and cementing himself in the hearts of generations of movie-goers for his vivid and memorable characters. The only dream we have is the wish we could have seen Robert Donat on stage.


In 1934 he starred as Edmund Dantes in Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo the quintessential historical drama. The following year, 1935 Donat was a contemporary adventurer in Alfred Hitchcock's adaption of John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps. Richard Hannay lives!

Buchan's novel, the first of five "shockers" featuring the character of Richard Hannay was adapted by Charles Bennett (The Man Who Knew Too Much) and Ian Hay (Secret Agent). They followed the template of the wrongly accused man shadowing the spies who can clear him, adding their own Hitchcockian cinematic touches.

John Buchan
Governor General of Canada, 1935-1940

Buchan (1875-1940), the Scottish born soldier/statesman/author commented to director Hitchcock during a private screening of the movie, "Fascinating! I wonder how it will end."

Robert Donat, Lucie Mannheim

Richard Hannay, played by Robert Donat, shortly returned to London from Canada finds himself with the not unwelcome company of an attractive and mysterious woman calling herself "Annabella Smith" played by Lucie Mannheim. They leave a music hall and return to Hannay's borrowed flat. There the slightly bemused man hears a tale of spies and of sinister men keeping track of their movements. The next morning is not so amusing as the woman dies exclaiming "Be careful, Hannay. They'll get you next."

Robert Donat, John Laurie, Peggy Ashcroft

Using his wits to escape the police, Hannay follows the few clues he has to get to the next link in the chain, Scotland. He finds brief rest and shelter with a young farm wife played by Peggy Ashcroft and her greedy older husband played by John Laurie.

Madeleine Carroll, Robert Donat

The man with the tip of a finger missing is supposed to be able to explain much. Godfrey Tearle as this "Professor" has much important necessary information seeing as he is the master of the spy ring. Hannay is truly up against it but, again, he is able to outwit those who would see him dead. Only now, Pamela a beautiful and extremely stubborn blonde played by Madeleine Carroll is handcuffed to our fugitive. And, yes, that is literally handcuffed, not figuratively!

Audiences have enjoyed sharing Hannay's adventure since its successful 1935 release. Running just under 90 minutes, The 39 Steps takes us from a crowded musical hall and back again through Scottish location filming, a political rally, bridges shrouded in fog, and cozy wayside inns where the next person you meet may mean deliverance or may mean death. The fate of a very likable hero is at stake, not to mention the fate of the country. And, by the way just what are these 39 steps anyway?

Robert Donat

The cinematic great-grandfather of North by Northwest's Roger O. Thornhill and the great-uncle of James Bond and his literary and cinematic brethren, The 39 Steps works on many levels and for many reasons, but most importantly for the depth and humour in Robert Donat's performance as a man wrongly accused and hounded by villains on all sides.

Hannay: "I know what it is to feel lonely and helpless and to have the whole world against me, and those are things that no men or women ought to feel."

John Buchan, Alfred Hitchcock

Eighty-five years of cinematic spies and adventurers owe much to John Buchan's "shockers": "An adventure where the events in the story are unlikely and the reader is only just able to believe that they really happened." and to Alfred Hitchcock's "MacGuffin": "The thing that the spies are after but the audience don't care about."











30 comments:

  1. When I saw this one, I remember being surprised at the amount of humor in an otherwise serious suspense story. I had seen Hitchcock films before, but this might have been the first time I became aware of his sense of humor. It’s something that isn’t talked about a lot.

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    1. I think that your experience mirrors many fans reaction to Hitchcock films. The humour sneaks up on you, and keeps you returning to his films and gaining a greater appreciation for all of their admirable aspects. As the old cliche goes, his picture should be next to "droll" in the dictionary.

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    2. Caftan woman makes a great point about Hitchcock's "humor sneaking up on you." There's a scene in "Rear Window" that cracks me up every time I see it, and most people likely don't even notice how funny it is. This is when Grace Kelly decides she wants to get into Thorwald's apartment, and she (or obviously her stunt double) and while wearing a dress and high heels scales that fire escape like a Sherpa going up Everest. It is so patently ridiculous, but I would bet 99 people out of 100 are so caught up in the suspense of the moment they never notice it.

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    3. I can see the sly smile on Hitch's face as he planned the scene.

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  2. Isn't this film such a lot of fun? I can imagine no one other than Robert in this now. Love the way he plays the character.I'm with you in wishing I could have seen him live on stage. A wonderful talent taken way too soon. Thanks so much for helping me celebrate his life and work, Paddy.

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    1. Thank you for the opportunity, Maddy.

      There are times when I see The 39 Steps is coming up on television and I figure I will give it a pass because I've seen it so many times, and then I'll see one scene or hear "his" voice and I am hooked again.

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  3. Oh, wonderful Robert Donat! What's so appealing about his Richard Hannay is how 'ordinary' he is; then he's thrust into the adventures of adventures and can only rely on luck, gumption, and his own common sense to help him. I adore Donat in so many of his performances, especially in 'The Winslow Boy'; I've also discovered his poetry readings, particularly of Keats - just wonderful stuff! You can only wish his career had been longer.

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    1. I am also a huge fan of The Winslow Boy, but wasn't away of the poetry readings. A lot of pleasure awaits me. Thank you so much.

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  4. This is from my favorite of Hitchcock's 1930s films, with Donat perfectly cast the "ordinary" man thrust into a heroic role. It also establishes a model for other Hitchcock films with heroes on the run (North by Northwest...as you mentioned, Young and Innocent, Saboteur).

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    1. The could-happen-to-anybody aspect of these characters involves Hitch's audience on a level "normal" thrillers can't. They will always be fresh.

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  5. Quintessential talkie. I can still hear Donat say to the mystery woman, "..What's the idea?" like he was too cool to just get picked up. Hitchcock's films before Hollywood are so charming, but this one is probably the one I would have on a desert island with only one movie to watch.

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    1. I can certainly understand The 39 Steps as your desert isle choice. It is grand company.

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  6. Such a great movie, but it needs someone like Robert Donat to carry it – and he does so effortlessly. And his performance is fresh. In a way, I always feel like I'm watching the movie for the first time...if that makes any sense?

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    1. Yes. You make a lot of sense. The 39 Steps always feels fresh and new, and so much of that is due to Robert Donat. I can't imagine a time when it won't entertain me.

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  7. Great review. One of my favorite Hitchcock film (and i love the book too). I especially love "Mr. Memory". Here's what Hitchcock said about him:

    There was also another interesting character in the film, Mr. Memory. He's based on a true-life music-hall personality called Datas. The audience would ask him questions about major events, like: "When did the Titanic sink?" and he would give the correct answer [...] The whole idea is that the man is doomed by his sense of duty. Mr. Memory knows what the thirty-nine steps are, and when he is asked the question, he is compelled to give the answer.

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    1. I have seen Wylie Watson in a few other movies but the character of Mr. Memory is outstanding, a true legacy for the actor.

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  8. Robert Donat made so many wonderful films, but you picked the topper of them all! This is such a good mystery. Just yesterday, my sister and I were talking about wanting to rewatch this film. We saw the Kenneth More remake a few weeks ago, but Donat's presence was sadly missing ( as good as More is! ). Thanks for a great write-up on a favorite!

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    1. Our love for Kenneth More cannot be questioned, but there is something special about Robert Donat and he brought that to Richard Hannay.

      Thank you for the kind words.

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  9. Paddy Lee, another good write-up of an Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece. Ah, yes the typical, but untypical regular fellow caught up in extraordinary circumstances. No movie maker did this better than Hitchcock. Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll had such wonderful chemistry. Madeleine Carroll was the first of Hitchcock's "ice-cool blondes" and she was so good here and in Hitchcock's SECRET AGENT(1936).

    I first remember seeing THE 39 STEPS(1935) on THE CBS LATE MOVIE in 1974 and the following night Hitchcock's THE LADY VANISHES(1938). I was able to watch several classic British movies during the 1970's thanks to THE CBS LATE MOVIE.

    If you like the humorous Hitchcock check out another favorite, THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY(filmed 1954, released 1955) it is a delight.


    Keep doing what you do and I look forward to your next write-up. Walter S.

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    1. Thank you, Walter.

      It is good share the love of these movies and the appreciation of Hitch's wry sense of humour. The Trouble With Harry seems to be finding its niche with classic film fans after years of neglect. "What seems to be the trouble, Captain?"

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  10. Speaking of KENNETH MORE he was in the DISNEY movie UNIDENTIFIED FLYING ODDBALL. I have never seen this movie. DENNIS DUGAN was also in the movie. Dennis did two eps of THE ROCKFORD FILES as RICHIE BROCKELMAN and then got starred in a short-lived spin-off. According to imdb it only had five eps.

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    1. Kenneth More's character in Genevieve, Ambrose Claverhouse, inspired the naming of our first family cat.

      I enjoyed Richie Brockelman and thought it should have lasted longer. Dennis Dugan has directed many television programs and movies.

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  11. I meant to say HE starred in a short-lived spin-off. I remember DENNIS DUGAN from an ep of MASH where he played the son-in-law of COL. POTTER(HARRY MORGAN).

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  12. Oh how I love this film! You write beautifully on one my favourite Hitchcock films and particularly on one of my favourite Robert Donat films. I'm drawn in every time I watch it and it never fails to enthral me.

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    1. That is the glory and the wonder of Hitchcock and The 39 Steps, we get drawn into it every time and every time is as fine as the time before. That is what makes a classic. And that feeling that it is "yours."

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  13. Great review . Love this film.. Hitchcock should have used Madeleine Carroll again. She was his first blonde. Her film career was cut short by the war when she returned to England.

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    1. Indeed, a re-teaming of Miss Carroll and Mr. Hitchcock is a dream.

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  14. A Very good review of a movie I like a lot. It's thrilling, engaging and surprisingly humorous at some times. Donat played Hannay with wit and charm, as always. I liked how you connected his character to Thornhill and Bond.
    Thanks for the kind comment!
    Kisses!
    Le

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    1. If I hear that opening Music Hall music I am always drawn into this movie. Thanks for the kind words.

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THE ESTHER WILLIAMS BLOGATHON: Dangerous When Wet, 1953

Michaela at Love Letters to Old Hollywood is hosting a blogathon tribute to her adored Esther Williams. The Esther Williams Blogathon ...